Good Auspices

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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.

Let me tell you a story that I heard a few weeks ago:

A big television network signs a major Broadway star to do a series. This happens quite often, actually: the rigors of stage work and the ability to charm an audience are ideal training for a star of a half-hour comedy. So with the star suitably dazzled by flattery and woozy with gold fever, the network searches around for a writer.

They-re looking for auspices, to use the industry term, which, like most industry terms, is neither accurate nor wholly literate. Auspices, around here, means not just a writer, but an uber-writer - a guy who will not only create a series and write the pilot episode, but who will also executive produce the resulting &quotone; hopes" enormously enriching hit.

So the network finds some pretty impressive auspices - a guy with a hit show already on the air - and sets up the deal.

Unfortunately, he can-t write. He-s awful. His scripts are unfunny, childish stacks of paper, with stories so conventional they-re almost confusing, and jokes so flat you can-t distinguish them from the stage directions. How this tiny talent of a man came to such worldly success is an example of the efficiency of the Hollywood economic model. You can get anybody to rewrite anything. Or, as the network executives like to say, &quotwe; can get somebody to plug the funny in." A few years ago, this guy wrote a lousy script that somehow limped onto the network-s schedule. A crucial late addition to the cast (&quotWe; can always plug some funny person into the cast," I can hear them saying) pushed it into a minor hit.

But the guy still can-t write. But with millions of dollars in the bank, he-s forgotten that.

So the guy writes the script for the Broadway actor. He gives it to a writer friend of his, to whom he has promised a staff-writing job on the series.

&quotWhat; do you think?&quotthe; writer asks his friend.

His friend has a choice: if he tells the truth, the writer may be so furious that he takes back the job offer on the spot; if he opts for mindless flattery, the writer may actually give the script to the Broadway actor as is, queering the deal, also resulting in his unemployment. It-s a classic Hollywood ethical dilemma: either choice ends up in a job search. The friend chooses the middle path, the typical Hollywood way, he tells the writer a half-truth.

&quotIt-s; pretty good," he says, slowly, hoping to be let off the hook. &quotI; mean, it-s a first draft, right?"

&quotNope.; It-s fine the way it is. At least, I think so. Don-t you?"

&quotOh;, yeah. Yeah," says the friend, mindful of his house payments. &quotIt-s; just that, I mean, shouldn-t the network see it first? Maybe give it a second pass or something? You know? Like a polish or something? Just tweak it a little? Here and there? You know?"

The writer does not give the script to the network first. And he does not &quottweak;" or &quotpolish;" it at all. Instead, he flies to New York, presents the whole muddled, jarring, monotonous raft of drek to the Broadway actor, in his dressing room, between the matinee and the evening performance.

By the time his plane has landed back at LAX, the Broadway actor has read the script, called his agent, pulled out of the deal, and issued a press release announcing his decision to &quotconcentrate; on the arena of feature films."

&quotThe; dumb ass showed him the script," the network executive fumed. &quotHe; actually thinks he-s a good writer. I tried to tell him, -you-re not a good writer.- I said, -you don-t have to be a good writer. We can get somebody to be a good writer for you.- And the guy says to me, -then why have me do the show at all?- So I told him, -we like your auspices.-"

Which, when you think about it, makes a certain kind of sense.

That-s it for this week. Next week we-ll suffer through pilot season. Happy New Year.

For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.



Rob Long